Be prepared for lots of laughter and perhaps a little crying, because the folks at Pixar have uncorked their best one yet.
Up is a monumental achievement; every frame bursts with supreme ingenuity. This is one of those rare movie experiences that had me marveling at everything I was seeing. It also manages to pack a huge emotional punch; in that respect, no live-action film in recent years can match it.
This story's unlikely hero is one Carl Fredricksen (wonderfully voiced by Edward Asner), a 78-year old man who refuses to sell his beloved house to pesky real-estate moguls. Just when it looks like the big city will swallow up his little home, Carl attaches thousands of colorful balloons to his abode and sails off for South America, where adventure awaits.
Unbeknownst to him, young and happy Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai), who was trying to get his "Assist the Elderly" badge, was hanging out on Carl's porch and is now along for the ride. The unlikely duo encounter a talking dog named Dug and a gigantic bird they call Kevin. Kevin is an endearingly awkward and rare species being pursued by another old man, in a zeppelin.
The old man in the zeppelin is Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a famous explorer who took off for South America with his army of dogs. Young Carl idolized Charles, and it's sort of heartbreaking when the two wind up battling each other over Kevin. Every movie like this needs a nemesis, and Muntz, with his pack of canines armed with talking collars, is a mighty good one.
It becomes apparent within the first few minutes that Pixar is willing to take some big risks, as they did with last year's WALL-E: The filmmakers are not afraid to address dark topics like death and violent misdemeanors in a children's film. In fact, calling this one a children's film is a bit of an injustice. It's rated PG, and it defies the "just for kids" label in a big way. Adults will probably get more out of it than the kiddies, although balloon sales will probably experience a nice little spike.
While the film unabashedly addresses sorrowful themes, this only makes the laughs bigger and more genuine. The running gag involving dogs able to talk thanks to special collars had me laughing during every second that they occupied the screen. It's both the sound of the dogs talking and the visuals that accompany their voices that make them so pricelessly funny. The sight of dogs flying planes in a true dogfight evokes both Snoopy from "Peanuts" and the final battle in Star Wars.
The visual of Carl and Russell pulling a floating house over rocks and through the jungle is a surreal doozy, up there with the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz and the star child in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Those films had a pioneering spirit, as does Up. It now represents the high watermark for animated cinema and stands firmly among cinematic history's greatest fantastical stories.
I've seen both the standard and 3-D versions. While seeing it without 3-D does nothing to dampen the great story, the three dimensions heighten the adventure sequences. Carl's final battle with Charles, complete with characters dangling from the flying house and the zeppelin, is a technical marvel.
I can also report that the funny short preceding the film, involving an intrepid stork and a thundercloud, definitely benefits from 3-D.
Next up for Pixar is a return to the familiar with next year's Toy Story 3. After seeing Ratatouille, I thought it was impossible for Pixar to do better. I felt the same way after seeing WALL-E. With Up, they have proved me wrong for a third time.